The new big book I’m working my way through, simply called Movies, overseen and edited by Phillip Kemp is going to bring me a whole bunch of films I’ve never seen, and probably a whole bunch I’ve already reviewed.
So I’m back in the era of the silent film, and A Fool There Was is the first one I dig into. A fairly simple plot, this one is dark, and shows us how bad and how far one man can fall. Edward Jose plays John Schuyler, a diplomat and the only character in the film, besides one victim, who is actually given a name.
Schuyler, on his way across the sea on a cruise ship to take up his new ambassadorship, falls prey to a woman the film, and its title cards, refer to as a Vampire. Played by Theda Bara, the Vampire is worse than a gold-digger, she takes the lives of the men she wants and tears them apart, warping them for her own needs so that they turn on their own families. Schuyler turns his back on his wife (Mabel Frenyear) and his child (Runa Hodges).
And, it’s terrible how she finds out. Through a gossip column, as they are on different sides of the ocean with only telegrams and letters to stay in contact, something he doesn’t want to do because he is so beguiled by this Vampire.
And she’s a cruel one. Proud, exploitative, and unrelenting. One of her conquests kills himself in front of her on the ship, and she has her deck chair set up on the exact same spot once its been washed clean. She also uses that exact same spot to lean into her seduction of Schuyler.
Schuyler loses everything through the course of the film, there is no happy Hollywood ending. It’s dark, unhappy, and it lingers. It reaches across the century that is now between us and its release, and reminds us of our folly, reminds us to hold onto the things we treasure, to not let them go and to beware of predatory women (or men as the case may be).
Theda Bara is wonderful as the vamp, cruel, delighting in the pain of her conquests, and knowing she can make them do anything she wants, even as she moves on to the next man who will be able to keep her in a manner she’s accustomed.
It’s an interesting watch, it’s dark thematically, and definitely not a joyous example of early film making. This is an adult tale that probably scared the men of the time as much as Fatal Attraction scared men in the late 1980s.
Let’s see what this big book, Movies, has for me next…